See I Am Doing A New Thing

LTC-brjohn-clean

Therefore do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God.

1 Cor. 4: 5

Nor does anyone put new wine into old wineskins. In such a case, the new wine will burst the wineskins. The wine itself will be spilled and the wineskins destroyed. One must put new wine into new wineskins. Also, no one drinking old wine prefers new wine, for he says, “The old wine is good.”

Luke 5: 37-9

Human emotions are essentially judgments. They are our bodily reactions to the persons and situations of our lives in light of our previous experiences, both personally and culturally. We experience fear, anger, and boredom relative to those persons, events, and things that evoke in us memories of past persons, events, and things that we have judged to be uninteresting, threatening or distasteful to us. We experience interest, warmth, and desire toward those persons and experiences which evoke in us memories of past persons and experiences we have judged to be well-disposed toward us and pleasant to experience. Among the most significant of Freud’s insights is his understanding that we do not experience the world directly but rather in the manner of what he called “transference.” Life and world come to us mediated through our past experiences, through “a web of absent others.”

This is the core of our difficulty in living in the present moment and in recognizing what is truly new about the present. We naturally live through pre-conceived notions and judgments. This is why the Hebrew Scriptures are constantly calling on the people to “Sing a new song to the Lord” (Psalm 96: 1). Isaiah writes:

Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah 43: 18-19

To recognize the “new thing” that is happening requires of us a form of “forgetting” of the past. In practice this means, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, that we must have a stance of suspicion toward our judgment of a person and situation. We must bracket that judgment until “the appointed time.” If Freud, and for that matter Isaiah, is correct, we must develop the humility to realize that often our initial judgments, our feelings, or as we are prone to say our “gut-reactions” are not the last word about the person or situation we are encountering.

Today’s gospel passage includes sayings of Jesus which, many scholars believe, are among those that are most likely to have come directly from Jesus’ own mouth. In verse 39 especially, Jesus tells us what most stands in the way of our receiving the call of the Holy Spirit which comes ever anew at each moment. The prime obstacle is our need for security. I recall as a child with how much difficulty my mother would attempt to get me to try something or someone new at those times when I would only select what I knew I already liked. This was true in almost every aspect of life: with food, books, clothes, friends, hobbies, leisure activities, school courses, and on and on. We tend to be wary about the new and different.

When we are profoundly satisfied, or at least secure, with the “old wine,” it is highly unlikely that we will be receptive to a “new wine” which we fear has the potential to unbalance and upset our equilibrium. So, in Jesus’ lifetime, it was “the sinners and tax collectors,” those without social standing, who were most able to hear the call and possibility in his message. For them, the “old wine” was not so good but rather a system by which they were judged and marginalized. For those for whom the “old wine” was good, there was little or no reason to even try the new.

To hear these words of Jesus is to recognize their truth in us. A difficult dimension of the gospel for us is that it calls us to abandon our need and desire for complacence. Our need for security is one of our most basic. When something works for us, we want to “ride the wave” for as long as possible — living the illusion that perhaps it could endure forever. Yet, the very nature of human life is that it is always challenging that illusion in us. For all our efforts in the personal, political, and religious spheres of life, the truth that everything passes will ultimately have its way with us. We can try to reify our personal lives, our social and political lives (“Make America great again!”), or our religious lives (restoring Christendom in the West) or we can live the tension of withholding judgment and listening openly to the summons of the new in the present moment.

This stance is a difficult one for us, for we can only live it in faith, hope, and love. It is unsteadying not to rely on our own feelings and judgments, on our own social biases and prejudices. Although these provide only an illusory ground, it feels to us, nonetheless, like a kind of solidity. To “stand ready” for God’s call, however, means to live with the acknowledgment of our own unsteadiness and tenuousness. It is to know the difference between our functional form potency which is limited, and our transcendent potency which is our infinite capacity to say “Yes!” to that to which we are called. It is our capacity to receive the new form we are always being given through the entire field of our day to day formation. At the level of spirit we are a capacity to say “Yes!” to God’s world and the life we have been given in it, even in the face of the mysteriousness and indefinability of the call. Or else, we can limit our lives to vanilla ice cream, with the false assurance and intellectual arrogance that there is nothing better.

But if we have no other practical choice than to try to live our lives and contribute to our societies as if Ecclesiastes were wrong, this should not manumit us from mustering the courage, at least from time to time, to contemplate the ultimate meaninglessness of history, and to recognize that, to paraphrase Trotsky’s quip about war, “You may not be interested in the geological record, but the geological record is interested in you.” And even if we radically narrow the frame, excluding not only evolutionary or geological time but also the approximately 192,000 years that elapsed between the emergence in Africa 200,000 years ago of anatomically modern “Homo sapiens” and the advent of porto-writing (usually ideograms) in the sixth millennium before the Common Era—if not, far more pertinently, the emergence of writing and thus of recorded history 2,000 years later in the fourth millennium BCE—there still can be no reprieve from the reality that sooner or later every human accomplishment, like every human being, will be forgotten. It is this that Kipling is inviting his readers to recognize in “Recessional”: sooner or later our own politics will vanish just as surely as did Nineveh and Tyre.

Davie Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memories and Its Ironies, p. 5

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